We hear a lot these days about new operas, but precious little about older operas from the relatively golden days of musical composition between the wars, operas that remain new to us because they have been so little performed under adequate conditions. Two shining examples of these rarely revived riches came to light at the beginning of May in Manhattan: a pair of short operas by Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), presented at Florence Gould Hall by the French Institute/Alliance française and L’Opéra français de New York. Milhaud, of course, was a marvelously gifted French composer, whose music was formed by an idiosyncratic mixture of Provençal folk music, Brazilian dance rhythms, jazz, and twentieth-century modernism, all brought together by a strong Conservatoire education and Gallic cosmopolitanism.
The two operas, Le pauvre matelot (to a libretto by Jean Cocteau) and Esther de Carpentras (to a libretto by Armand Lunel), were written in 1926 and 1925, respectively. Le pauvre matelot brilliantly uses French sea tunes to describe a chilling story of a sailor’s return home after a long absence. Unrecognized by his wife, the sailor first must test her fidelity by posing as a rich friend of her supposedly destitute husband; when the sailor goes to sleep, his wife kills him and robs him, thinking that by so doing she is ensuring a prosperous life with her husband. Esther uses Franco-Jewish chants to retell, in the medieval ghetto world of Carpentras, the biblical story of Esther’s successful attempt to save her people from Haman. As the Jews celebrate their biblical deliverance with a masquerade, a young Cardinal appears to demand their conversion, or their exile or death; but the French Esther manages to soften his heart, the edict goes unenforced, and the Jews of Carpentras are saved.
Le pauvre matelot uses only four characters, and was here performed in Milhaud’s own scoring for thirteen instruments. Esther uses many characters, and, like Le pauvre matelot, was originally scored for a large orchestra; on this occasion, however, it was performed by fourteen instruments in a reduction made by the French conductor Bernard Desgraupes under the supervision of the composer’s widow, who attended the New York performances. The production of Esther was further and intelligently simplified by the use of a chorus in the pit to sing many of the parts in the work’s frequent group scenes, thus allowing the stage chorus to concentrate on movement and mime. The sets for both operas, though not elaborate, were highly effective; the stage direction was brilliant; the vocal execution was remarkably secure and pleasant to hear, with a particularly fine performance coming from tenor Charles Workman in the high-flying and difficult role of the Cardinal; the conducting, by Yves Abel, produced an always transparent sound from the small orchestra, and was never less than lively and beguiling.
Hats off, then, to L’Opéra français de New York; long may it thrive in our suffering Manhattan. But all credit to the performers aside, the real star of the production was—as it should be—the composer himself. Darius Milhaud, with whom I studied many years ago at Mills College in California, composed hundreds and hundreds of pieces. He had an extraordinary facility for writing music. The notes flowed from his pen, and it seemed as if he never blotted a one. Along with Poulenc, Honegger, Tailleferre, Auric, and Durey, he was a member in the late Teens and the early Twenties of the famous and iconoclastic Les Six, but he always kept his own personality separate. That personality was both witty and grave; in all of his uses of folk material and jazz, he never lost track for a moment of the deeper sentiment that underlay both his material and his own aesthetic outlook. As the gay 1920s metamorphosed into the patriotic 1940s, his charm, in works ranging from the jazzy La création du monde (1923) through the Suite provençale (1936) to the Suite française (1944), was his strongest suit, though large numbers of his weightier works from these decades await rediscovery—and discovery. After World War II, a certain dry and acerb character crept into his music, a music that increasingly seemed—and I stress the word seemed —to amount to little more than a master going through the motions of his craft.
In the years since my studies with him ended, I have often reflected that our lack of appreciation of Milhaud might well lie less in his works than in ourselves—as both musicians and audience. Milhaud’s compositions are always difficult to play, and I know from personal experience that his late works are extremely difficult. From the performer’s standpoint, what was, and is, difficult about Milhaud’s music is the amount of technique, talent, and persistence it takes to penetrate through his many notes to the sheer tunefulness and delight in music-making that reside within. In these matters, of course, the audience is at the mercy of the performers; what the performers cannot recognize in the music cannot be perceived by the listeners. Thus the task of putting Milhaud in his rightful musical place calls for a massive effort from his executants, an effort one fears is hardly likely to be made at the present time.
What was so wonderful about these performances of two short and early Milhaud operas was that the performers captured the wit and the tunes in all the sounds the artist wrote. The result was an effervescent evening of the best of twentieth-century music —bright, sophisticated, serious in implication, and masterly in execution. The capacity audience was charmed, and so was I. As for Milhaud, it is high time (however unpropitious this time may be), on the one hundredth anniversary of his birth, for the exploration of his oeuvre to begin.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 10, on page 61
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